How to be a Writer

Last night my daughter asked us, “How can I be a writer?” It wasn’t a surprising question, since she’s the inquisitive sort who wants to know everything from how movies are made to the history of World War I. And since both her parents are writers, she would naturally be interested in how such a thing is done.

It’s an interesting question. Taken literally, the answer is simple – write down some words, and ta-da! You’re a writer. A more specific inquiry might be – “How can I be a good writer?” “How can I be a successful writer?” or “How can I become a best-selling, award-winning writer and never have to work a regular job again?” I have no answer to the third question. The second one has a lot to do with treating writing like any other business – writing professional query letters, networking, sticking scrupulously to deadlines and goals, and other things which I have yet do do since I’m still in the early stages of seeking publication. The first, though, I think I can reasonably tackle. And it’s largely how I answered my daughter last night.

How to be a (Good) Writer

1. Read. This is the first, middle and eternal step. How can you learn how it’s done if you don’t look at how others do it? Those who claim to be skilled writers but turn up their noses at reading are only fooling themselves. Read. Especially from the genres you’d like to write, but branch out as well. Read what you love, and figure out why you love it, what works. Also take note of what doesn’t work. Some fear that if you read too much of a particular writer, you’ll end up parroting that style. You may. But if you work hard enough, you’ll find your own voice eventually. And in the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to start out as an imitator. It works for artists and musicians. As long as your eventual aim is to develop an original style, you’ll do fine.

2. Story and Style

A good writer has to be strong in both facets of writing – what the story is, and how that story is told. Both require a particular set of skills – not entirely exclusive of each other – and if either one is weak, the writing suffers.

A good story requires, simply put, characters we care about who are in pain. Not very nice, but who reads stories in which nothing goes wrong? But if, on the other hand, a bland, underdeveloped character undergoes bucketfuls of suffering, who’s going to care? Make us care about the characters, and then hurt them. This may be where writers get the reputation of being slightly evil. 😉

The plotting of the story is a process of introducing the stakes – what will be lost if the character can’t overcome the conflict – and heightening the stakes until they reach an almost unbearable point. That’s where the climax comes in. Creating just the right amount of tension, to keep the reader reading but avoiding overkill, is a process that requires lots of planning, lots of revision, and potentially lots of pulling one’s hair from one’s scalp and wailing. But when it’s done well, it’s worth it.

Style is the craft of the writing. The word choice, the sentence structure, the careful deliberation that elevates the written word from the level of unpolished, spontaneous speech. It’s recognizing the nuances of meaning, the difference between purple and violet. It’s in the rhythm of words, the contrast between long, rambling passages and terse, five-word sentences. How do you hone such a craft? Read. Find turns of phrase, descriptions and images that you love, and find out why you love them. Then, in your own writing, experiment. And be ruthless. Don’t hesitate to eliminate pages of writing if the prose is falling flat. Read your writing out loud and listen for problems in the phrasing that you may have missed from reading silently. It’s a trial-and-error process, and what works for one person may not work for another. The important thing is to keep reading, keep writing, and never let yourself be fully satisfied – always strive to be better. This could be why writers also have the reputation of being insane. 🙂

3. Write

There is lots of preparation involved with the writing process, but none of it amounts to anything if you don’t sit yourself down in a chair and write. It’s a habit that has to be developed the same as any other, with repetition and self-discipline and not letting yourself make excuses. Sometimes it means you’ll churn out pages of garbage. But even garbage furthers your writing process in one way or another, even if only to remind you of what doesn’t work. Writing can only be accomplished by writing, plain and simple. Take a break now and then, sure. And don’t spend all your free time writing, because those ideas you need to plot and plan will usually come in those down-time moments, walking or driving or showering or lying in bed. But then it’s time to arrange an hour or two or three to sit and do nothing but write.

And that’s essentially what I told my daughter, though in slightly simpler terms. It’s what I tell myself when I’m discouraged or disillusioned or just staring at the computer screen, unable to come up with a single word. Read. Remember the story and the style. And write. Write, write, write.

And hey, look! I’m a writer! Maybe not the number 2 or number 3 kind, but I’m aiming at least for the number 1.

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